The thing about hunger is most of us aren’t hungry because we need food. We have trained our bodies, with the help of Monsanto to Mcdonalds, to crave and desire food. As Americans we have fast, cheap and out of control access to every kind of food imaginable. Willpower to just say ‘no’ is not enough. Understanding hunger and doing some self experimentation is the key to controlling it.
Hunger– \ˈhəŋ-gər\ (noun):
For many years I ate 5 to 6 small meals per day, grazing. I trained my appetite to signal me to eat every 3 hours or so. If I didn’t eat, I would get cranky as my blood sugar dropped. Eating 3 meals and having 2 to 3 snacks per day was the dogma I followed and many nutritionist still proscribe for health and weight loss. “It will stoke your metabolism”, I thought. However, science is anything but clear on this. In fact, I believe it made me hungrier. So now I am practicing a form of intermittent fasting (IF) and I have never felt better. In the beginning of my IF personal experiments I felt hunger for the first time in my life. It hurt, it made me uncomfortable, it forced me to day dream about food so much so I almost quit until I redefined hunger and let my body acclimate to the new eating pattern. I persisted and now reap the benefits of embracing and redefining hunger:
- Weight loss (mostly fat loss)
- Increased focus and memory retention
- Increased energy levels
- More control over my food cravings and appetite
- More time to do other things during the day (other than preparing and cooking food)
- Resting my digestive system
- More stable blood sugars and improved insulin sensitivity
- Recognition of what satiety really is and not overeating
I discovered that nothing terrible will happen if I don’t eat for a full day let alone a few hours. As I practice a daily fast, 16 hours a day of fasting, the feeling of hunger will ebb and flow. Perhaps the most stunning result of fasting on a regular basis is the laser like focus one attains while not eating. This may be an evolutionary response harking back to times when we hunted to survive. The hunters that lived to pass on their genes were adept at finding food even when they were on the verge of starving. The NYTimes stated in regards to hunger and brain power, “…some biologists believe that human intelligence itself evolved because it made early hominids more effective hunters, gathers and foragers.” Scientists have correlated periodic fasting to the increased production of brain-derived nerve growth factor (BDNF): a protein that acts as a “fertilizer” to the synapses, protects brain cells, and in certain areas of the brain, regenerates brain cells.
The feeling of hunger is triggered by over 100 physiological, psychological and environmental factors. Here are a few of the major ones:
- Ghrelin – a hormone produced in the stomach that stimulates hunger – think stomach Gremlin
- Leptin resistance (seen in the obese) – a hormone released by your fat cells which tells your body you are sated. Except in cases of resistance where your brain can’t see the leptin and increases its fat stores as a result by upping your hunger levels.
- Insulin – a hormone when elevated (by eating carbs and sugar) will depress blood sugar and increase appetite – it is sometimes given to undernourished people in order to increase their appetite!
- Smells of food – I avoid walking by some restaurants because their cooked food smells so darn good. I’m glad I can’t smell ice cream.
- Looking at food – specifically looking at fattening foods will elicit responses in our brain that will increase cravings.
- Meal timing habits – your body will get use to eating at certain times and rev your hunger hormones prior to your regular meal times.
- Stress – releases cortisol which seems to increase hunger yet in the long term stress may actually decrease hunger. A chronically stressed person is not primed to digest well.
I recommend most people try to fast for one whole day from breakfast to breakfast in order to become acquainted with the signals of true hunger while simultaneously conquering their fear of going without food. Nothing bad will happen and your body will likely burn some stored fat for energy. We don’t need to eat every 3 hours or snack. Your metabolic rate won’t slow down, you will survive and probably lose weight in the process. If you decide to participate in a intermittent fasting regimen it will take some getting use to (about 2-3 weeks). Your body craves homeostasis and will soon fall in line with your new eating habits. Its easy to redefine hunger and once you do, it’ll give you more control of how you eat, feel and live.
1. JAMA: Insulin and Hunger
2. Looking at food increases appetite
3. Robert Sapolsky, “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers”, Henry Hold & Company; 1994.
4. Brain Wansink, “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think”, Bantam: 2006.
5. NYTimes: Empty Stomach Intelligence
6. Autophagy: Fasting and Brain Health